First Look: Michigan vs. Tennessee

Dylan Burkhardt

Photo: MGoBlue

Most expected Michigan to grab a 10 or 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament but the committee awarded the Wolverines, 20-13 (9-9), with an eight seed in the west region.The eight seed is the fourth best seed awarded to a Big Ten team but doesn’t necessarily present the easiest path to the second weekend. Michigan will face Tennessee in the opening round before a potential match-up with the No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils.

Tennessee provides an intriguing match-up for Michigan, mainly because the two programs are so different – both on the court and at the end of the bench. John Beilein’s slow paced offense relies on three point shooting combined with precision cutting and passing. Bruce Pearl’s offense is more uptempo and interior focused with a roster of athletes that play aggressive defense. To add to their differences, John Beilein is more cool and composed on the bench and is the head of the NCAA Ethics committee. On the other hand, Bruce Pearl is fiery and brash and under NCAA investigation for lying to investigators over recruiting violations.

The Vols rank 55th on KenPom and appear to have the ability to win or lose any game. They have knocked off Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Memphis, Villanova, Georgia, and VCU but have also lost to Charlotte, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Oakland and the College of Charleston. They are capable of beating just about anyone when they are playing well, but don’t seem to play to their potential every night. Most recently, Tennessee has been losing more than winning, dropping 7 of the last 11 games.

Scottie Hopson and Tobias Harris lead the Vols in scoring

So what does Tennessee do well? Defend and rebound. The Vols surrendered only .98 points per trip in SEC play, the second best mark in the league. With the length and athleticism on the floor, four starters are 6-foot-6 or taller, it’s no surprise that the Vols can force opponents into low percentage shots, force turnovers, and clean up the defensive glass. The greatest strength of the Tennessee defense in SEC play has been defending the three point shot, SEC teams made just 31.2% of their long range attempts against Tennessee this year.

The Vols struggle to score the ball, averaging just 1.01 points per possession in SEC play, a figure which ranks 7th in the SEC and would rank 10th in the Big Ten, a better league. Tennessee is a bad shooting team – 47.5% on twos and 30.1% on threes – and rarely gets to the free throw line (FTR 33%, 10th SEC). The one thing that the Vols do well is crash the offensive glass, pulling down 37% (3rd SEC) of their missed shots in conference play. If they played in the Big Ten, Tennessee would be tied with Minnesota as the best offensive rebounding team in the league.

Teams that have topped 1.00 point per possession mark offensively are 11-4 against the Vols compared to 3-14 under. Similarly, teams that have shot better than a 50% eFG% are 10-2 versus Tennessee compared to 4-17 when held under. The Vols thrive in defensive struggles and just don’t have the offensive firepower to win shootouts. Michigan’s effective field goal percentage in conference play was 54% (2nd B10) and the Wolverines averaged 1.06 points per trip, if they can come close to those averages in this game they should have a very good chance to win.

Clemson, Michigan State and Minnesota are probably the teams on Michigan’s schedule with a statistical profile most similar to Tennessee. Clemson isn’t quite as good on the offensive glass but is better defensively while Minnesota’s numbers are skewed by their late season tumble. Michigan State is an equally horrendous shooting team and does a great job on the offensive glass but doesn’t force nearly as many turnovers. Michigan is 4-1 versus those teams, which could be a good sign.

Michigan’s offense is generally designed to take advantage of teams that play an over aggressive ball pressure style of defense. However, Michigan has struggled against some of these teams, like UTEP, because they aren’t comfortable with their counter moves (backdoor cuts, etc.). Luckily that game was eons ago and Michigan’s offense has improved significantly. Dealing with Tennessee’s athletic advantage will be a challenge but the Wolverines should feel confident if they are able to run their sets and hold their own on the defensive glass.

  • Section13Row15

    I can’t wait for this game! We may end up getting a rematch w/ Tennessee in the Maui next year too. I’ve watched Tennessee play and they have no semblance of a real offense. It’s mostly just ill advised shots off the transition. Belein has close to a week to prepare, I like our chances. It’s a tough bracket but that’s why you play college basketball. A great opportunity to prove to the nation that we belong.

    • JD

      Who else is in the Maui field?

      • Andrew S

        It’s loaded next year. Michigan, Tennessee, Kansas, Duke, Memphis, UCLA, and I think Marquette to go with the usual Chaminade.

  • bryemye

    If we managed to get past the length and size of Minnesota and Illinois I’m hoping we’ll be able to handle Tennessee.

  • Fred_Ex

    Really, I want to see U of M play Tennessee but I’m more looking forward to a game versus Duke. Just as a sort of measuring rod for where we are. We played and lost to top teams like Syracuse (Big East) and Kansas (Big 12 and another top seed) in close games. But that was early in the season when we were not playing that well. I’m interested to see how a above average team in the Big Ten like Michigan, does against the best teams in other conferences, if there is a big disparity in teams skill from different conferences that makes a 9-9 team in the big ten a 4 or 5 loss team in in the ACC.

    Tennessee looks like a tough matchup with their size but it seems like they play a fast paced almost run-n-gun style offense which takes away from their tremendous height advantage. If we can somehow find away to prevent offensive second chance opportunities we should win easily. If we don’t I think it will still be a close game because of their poor shooting.

    • Azad

      Let’s keep the focus on Tennessee before it goes to Duke. We talk about this team being better than the team 2 years ago…well, they won a tournament game. Now we need to do the same thing.

      • Mattski

        No offense, but I always find this line of reasoning dubious, if not a little superstitious. We’re not playing the game, right? It’s ALL about speculation here, no? That’s the fun of it! You’re right that Tenn may be a tall order, especially if they’re on. But–having recently watched an interview with Coach K in which he said he thought his team beat the Fab 5 because they were ‘a real team,’ I too itch to see how we might do against Duke.

        • Azad

          I know it’s stupid, whether or not you or I overlook Tennessee, obviously the team is not overlooking Tennessee. I just am too worried about Tennessee right now to think about Duke a whole lot.

          For what it’s worth, having played OSU 3 times, Kansas once…while those teams are not similar to Duke really, I do think it benefits us having played that level of elite competition. And Duke doesn’t have Sullinger, so that in some sense makes them at least a tiny bit easier for our team to defend. I can’t wait to discuss this for real if we can get by Tennessee.

        • Haha! I agree entirely. No team has lost a game because their fans have looked past an opponent.

          • Fred_Ex

            I agree with MattM. I’m gonna watch the game against Tennessee, I mean I am a real fan. But Out of all the number 1 seeds I think I might rather face Duke this year, not because there one of the two #1 seeds we haven’t played. The reason why I’m looking at Duke is actually because we won one game in 08′ – 09′.

  • bskurtz

    I feel stupid asking this question but is michigan in the eastern or central time zone.

    • bluerev


    • ToBlav


    • Brian W

      The far-western part of the Upper Peninsula is in the Central Time Zone.

      • bskurtz

        thanks guys,well Ime screwed.Ime gonna have to go get a DVR.I was praying for a late start.This is the earliest start time for a Michigan tournament game that I remember.Well we did go a decade without having to worry about being home in time to watch a Michigan tournament game.

  • AG2

    I’m still keep thinking about that 27 point game Scotty Hopson had vs. Pitt. He just couldn’t miss in that game. The Vols shot lights-out from 3, took 30 free throws, and won despite giving up 20 turnovers.

    • Tim Kim

      Ya…when the vols play to their potential they are much better than their 9 seed indicates. They also seem to play to their competition. I’m not sure how that impacts us, as I don’t know how exactly to classify our team’s caliber.

  • Mark

    Agreed with the scouting report. I was so excited when I saw this matchup. This might have been one of the best 1st round draws that UM could have gotten IMO.

  • Tweeter

    I only watched a few tennessee games this year, so my opinion may not be the most informed. But from what I saw of them these are going to be the keys.

    – Take away Scottie Hopson. They run a lot of their “offense” thru him. I say that in quotes not because they are not dangerous or good at times on offense, but because they are not an organized offense. When they are going good, they get the ball inside to their big guy (Williams?) and then play off kick outs and penetration. When they are bad they just pass it around until someone attacks and throws up a shot, then they chase after it. Which is a danger in itself but more on that later. The teams that I have seen have success against them have taken Hopson out of the game. He is very prone to frustration and sometimes just stands still on offense if he doesnt get the ball. They have other guys who can score, but none that are as dynamic a scorer as he is. Limit him and they struggle.

    – Find bodies on rebounds. Especially the shooter. They are not a team that is going to beat you on the boards by getting position. Rather they get the ball up on the glass and then try to out-athlete you for boards. You have to find bodies and keep them grounded. Obviously we cannot jump with them on the glass. One big key is boxing out the shooter. A lot of there guys attack the basket and throw up shots that have little chance of going in. But they go hard after it and it can be difficult to box out a shooter who is flying down the lane out of control. We gotta find a way to get on those guys.

    – Pick and roll them to death. I think they are good enough and athletic enough on D to handle our standard sets. But I don’t think they are very good on help side. We need to put them in a lot of situations where they have to help and the pick and roll is probably our best option since we don’t have great one-on-one guys.

    – make them hit perimeter shots. I don’t think the 1-3-1 is a great option against them simply because it will give them too many open lanes for driving and make it harder for us to rebound. Instead I think we need to just use our man defense and keep everything in front of us. A lot of over-helping with short close-outs. If they hit a bunch of threes, then we can adjust, but I would rather see them try that then allow them to attack us.

    – Look to push the ball when its there. Because they crash the glass so hard, they take themselves out of transition rotations a lot. We need to attack in transition when we can. Finding some of those easy points is going to be key since I believe we will struggle to find great shots in the half-court.

    – Going along with the above point, don’t force it when it’s not there. We don’t want a track meet unless we are going bananas on threes. It is going to be tough to score in the half-court, but we have to make them play our game and out-execute us. I don’t think they can over the course of a game.

    These keys are very similar to the Clemson game from two years ago. Just switch Hopson with Rivers. Clemson was not quite as good on D, but they were a little more dynamic on offense and more dedicated to their uptempo style.

    • Mattski

      Great post. I wonder how four days to prepare affects both teams’ play.

  • Vin

    Does Belein really run ” a slow paced offense” this year? Seems like UM (via Darius Morris) has been happy to push the ball in transition this year. (I realize Dylan is just trying to draw contrasts between the programs and UM isn’t nearly as helter-skelter as UT). Just a pet peeve of mine that people (e.g., Steve Kerr oveer the weekend on CBS) pigeonhole Beliein’s teams into the “Princeton offense” without any regard for what they should be seeing with their own eyes.

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      I agree with you in regards to the Princeton offense stuff, but Michigan does play at a slow tempo.

      Michigan averages 62.8 possessions per game, which ranks 328th in Division I — 60.6 possessions in Big Ten games.

      Tennessee, for comparison’s sake, averages 67 poss. per game (146th nationally) and 65 in SEC games. If anything, Tennessee is playing a bit slower than they are accustomed to.

      I agree that Michigan’s offense can be effective pushing the ball off of a defensive rebound, especially finding shooters in transition.

      • Vin

        Well then, I stand corrected. Thanks Dylan.

      • gpsimms

        we should say that a low-possession game does not mean that we play “slow” in the sense that we do not run, though.

        our transition offense is pretty good, and we do push it off of turnovers and rebounds quite often. part of the reason we are a slow tempo team is because we focus on getting back on d rather than crashing the offensive glass.

        we push the ball, but don’t allow our opponents to. so yes, while our tempo measure by possessions per game is one of the lowest, i wouldn’t say our offense is slow paced because that brings with it the characterization that we don’t push in transition.

        i would agree that when we don’t create something in transition, and actually run through our offensive set, then it is not “fast.”

      • Kenny

        I am not sure if possessions per game is a sufficient statistic to describe the tempo. This Michigan team is very patient in the half court offense but settles with a lot quick shots in transitions as well and is a good transition team.

        • Tweeter

          yes. Michigan is a team that plays low possessions game mostly due to the fact that they dont take a lot of bad shots and they dont give up a ton of easy open looks. The team can run though and is more than willing to push the ball the down the court, but they just are not going to force up a shot in transition just because they got out in transition. When they do take quick shots, they are almost always wide open shots or layups.

        • Kenny

          Just want to add that the number of possessions per game also depend on the opponents. Big Ten has a lot of slow tempo teams. A slow tempo team in a up tempo conference can easily get more possession per game than an up tempo team playing in a slow tempo conference.

          • gpsimms

            i think our tempo is even slow by big ten standards…but again as i said above, that doesn’t mean we don’t push things

    • Jeff

      Can’t wait to hear some of the talking heads discuss how Tennessee will handle our vaunted 1-3-1 defense.

  • JD

    I have yet to see an ESPN “expert” pick Michigan to win.

    • Fred_Ex

      Doyel and Freeman from CBS have picked us to beat Tennessee (for what it’s worth). Wouldn’t really hold my breath for ESPN to fall in love with us.

  • fitey

    there has been some experts that said michigan is a team to watch. Tenn length might hurt us since we all know we are notthe strongest of rebounding teams, Although they are tall not really big i mean 6-6 220 is not impossible to move out of lane hopefully we can get a body on them and grab some boards. On my board picked us too win at tenn and duke just couldn’t help myself. Here’s to a ncaa bid and hoping for a long run.

  • ForeverBlue23

    So who draws the Hopson defensive assignment? Here’s hoping Horford is healthy and those spot minutes that Christian has had have him ready (as I think they may need him some).

  • THe One and Only

    has coach b at number #2…interesting…behind Izzo, of course.